There are all sorts of impediments to print survivability, and how technically "archival" the print itself might be is only one facet of that. Prints can be lost; they get discarded; they can be maliciously destroyed by people who don't like them or don't understand their importance (much of Paul Outerbridge's carefully crafted lifetime body of work was deliberately destroyed by his wife, whose "morality" was offended by their content—partial nudes and some sado-masochistic references). They can tear, crease, get stuff spilled on them, or get crumpled. As John Camp so eloquently described in his Featured Comment to Part I, they can simply lose relevance or interest—when nobody remembers, nobody cares.
...Of course, "nobody" is a difficult set to prove. With most things, finding the person or people who care about them—matchmaking between the right owner and the right objects—is often key. Although that takes time and effort too.
I'll give you an example, albeit a negative one. A decade or more ago, my brother's stepfather, who for many years worked for the Illinois Central Railroad, told me about the fate of 15 file boxes full of railroad pictures, dating back to the 1800s, documenting railway bridges and bridge repairs. The pictures had been stored forever in the company's headquarters, but suddenly they were moving and they no longer had room to store the boxes. Not knowing what to do with them, an executive decision was made: toss them in the dumpster. Now, having worked at a railroad magazine, I know that somewhere, there are railroad buffs or model railroaders who would have been very glad to have accepted those boxes. The problem was that, when the time came, those who were in charge of the move didn't have time to go find those people. (I don't think they tried very hard—there's even an Illinois Central Historical Society! But that's the way it goes.)
Paul Outerbridge, whose wife, after his death, fearing for his "reputation," destroyed many of his fetish pictures. (Self-portrait.)
Some of my own prints suffered an ignominious fate. I took a portfolio of prints to show to a girlfriend at her house—and inadvertently left them behind. And there they stayed. But the relationship eventually turned sour, and it would have been awkward to show up asking for the pictures back because it would have meant an opening for a big emotional scene. Long and short of it—I never went back to retrieve my prints, some of which were unique. I still remember which ones they were, and have often kicked myself for losing them in such a dumb and preventable way.
When I talked to Christopher Bailey a couple of weeks ago—he of the Lost Portfolio—he mentioned that he actually did lose a number of his miniature portfolios because he would send them art directors, or used them as leave-behinds, and they were never returned.
Tell the tale
Stories benefit pictures, too. Some pictures contain their own stories: one tintype I have is of a relative who was a drummer boy during the Civil War. His story is contained in the picture—there he stands, all of 12 or 14, dressed in his uniform, holding his drum. (I also have a society portrait of the same guy half a century later, richly dressed, portly and formidable looking, a captain-of-industry type. Name of Sam Collett.)
You can tell the stories of your pictures, too, to amplify their meaning and help other people appreciate them. I loved Robert's account from Saturday about turning over a photograph from the 1930s to find the legend "Taken 3 months ago" on the back. I can guess the situation: a snapshot mailed to another person at a specific time, probably—a person who would want to know when the picture was taken relative to the "now" of whenever he or she opened the letter. Everything else was understood. Whoever wrote those words was definitely not thinking of posterity. That's okay—not all of us want to use photographs for more than our immediate needs—but it certainly illustrates the frustration of someone decades later wondering about the story of the picture.
Physical damage can descend in a bewildering myriad of forms. In Chicago, I lived in a marvelous rehabbed loft apartment, with 14-foot ceilings, exposed brick walls, and exposed ductwork. But the remodeler had removed the many decades' worth of flat tar roof by sawing down through the layers with a circular saw and carrying it off in 3-foot squares. Unfortunately, the chips and dust created by the saw from the old roofing worked down into the thick boards underneath—which was the ceiling of my loft. So whenever anybody walked on my roof, little bits of tarry material would sift and fall into my condo. I now have dozens of prints that have little unremoveable black tar spots on them.
(You can say I should have kept all of my prints continually covered or put away. All I can say is, that's easy for you to say. Imagine being housekeeping-impaired and coming home at the end of a long day to find black tar dust covering everything in your theretofore clean kitchen. It was all I could do to remember to keep the lid on the sugar bowl.)
Setting things aside helps. Remember the photo of my book from Part I? Just the act of putting a few dozen prints in a book will greatly increase their chances of survival (or would have, had I used archival materials to make the prints). Reason? I've designated them as being important and put them into a handy "final form." Out of thousands of exposures I've selected two dozen, and cropped and sequenced and printed them the way I think they should look. That's enough to at least indicate a sort of value in them. It might not be enough, but it might help.
If you leave a mass of photographica at the end of your life, even just having one box labeled "Valuable Family Photos" would greatly increase the chances of that one box being reserved from the general migration to the dumpster or Goodwill. Not all of your photographs need to survive—but maybe some of them should, and you're the one who knows best which ones those are. So then, tell people. Designate your important work, your family pictures, and so forth. People will be more likely to respect them if you respected them.
Start that box
We need to acknowledge that there are different purposes for archiving our work. While we're alive and working, what we need is to have our "libraries" of all our raw material organized and available for our creative use—and the most organized among us have elaborate systems for organizing and preserving whole archives of shooting. But that can become almost an impediment when we die or retire or move on and our work is no longer needed or used for ongoing creative redaction. Why? Because entire archives are big and unweildy and require a commitment to preserve—a commitment in physical space, in curatorial energy—even in what you might call "psychic" energy. (That is, they are demanding enough of maintenance resources to require that somebody have some regard for their importance.) When an archive is too large and requires too much in the way of resources to maintain, the decision to trash the whole lot of it becomes tempting to temporary custodians who aren't invested in the work or particularly interested in it.
(One of the leitmotifs of my existence is that periodically people come to me asking either what to do with old archives of work, or wondering if, and how, they might profit from them.)
By contrast, imagine having to clear out a relative's possessions, including heaps of undifferentiated photographica, and coming across a single, not-too-big box labeled "MY VERY BEST PHOTOGRAPHS—John Q. Doe, 1937–?" With each picture in the box signed and labeled with date and time and subject? Who wouldn't set that aside and keep it, even if everything else were headed to the thrift shop?
Two boxes of valuable photos are more likely to survive than 20; a file box is more likely to survive than three filing cabinets. And so on. So start that box. Do it now. Why not?
Numbers and locations
But back to physical preservation. I have to acknowledge that there is always an ongoing process of triage being performed here. The fact is, most of us, being clever people, could come up with an infinitely fastidious scheme for ideally insuring the survival of our work. But the fact is, those schemes will require huge amounts of work and attention and effort and time and money, and those are the things we don't have—most of us would rather be out shooting, or at least reading camera reviews and thinking about what lens to buy next.
So it's all well and good to point out that making multiple copies of our prints will increase their survivability, and it's obvious that storing them in different locations will help guard against catastrophe. But often it just isn't feasible to translate that knowledge into action.
Still, it's a bit curious to me that people are so commonly so obsessive about distributing their computer data over several locations, when you seldom hear of people doing so with their prints. The more different places the copies are stored, the better the chance of survival. I've argued in the past that the Folger Shakespeare Library shouldn't keep all of its Shakespeare First Folios. Seventy-nine of them in one place—a third of the copies known to exist—is convenient for scholars, but for survivability, it's a very bad idea. Having the one place be Washington D.C. is an even worse idea—one terrorist bomb, and two-thirds of the world's First Folios could go up in smoke. (Of course that would be the least of the tragedy if such a thing were to happen.) My point is that if they have to all be kept in one place, they'd be better off in the middle of Kansas.
Consider Jacques Lowe. Not much has been made of this, because, again, there were much larger dimensions to the tragedy. It was a significant loss to posterity nonetheless. Jacques, who died at 71 in 2001, was John F. Kennedy's unofficial White House photographer. ("Stick around and record my administration," Kennedy told him. "Don't worry, I'll make it worth your time.") His precious, historically significant negatives were stored in one of the safest places on the planet—the J. P. Morgan Chase bank vault in the basement of the World Trade Center. If anyone had suggest up till September 10th that those 40,000 negatives were in imminent danger of obliteration, the idea would have seemed almost preposterous.
It would have been much better, as it turned out, to have split the negatives into five groups and keep them in five different bank vaults, or, better yet, five different bank vaults in five different cities.
Jacques Lowe, unofficial chronicler of Camelot, moved to France and all but gave up photography after Bobby Kennedy was killed. "I couldn't deal with these tragedies anymore," he said. "I had to get out." There was to be one last tragedy for him, just after his death. Photo by Chester Simpson.
A sterling example of how to use multiple copies and multiple locations to your advantage is provided by our friend Charlie Cramer and his picture Aspen in Fog, Boulder Mountain, Utah that we featured in our print sale that ended just last Friday. In the next two or three weeks Charlie will disseminate several hundred signed prints of that picture to voluntary custodians all over the world—virtually all of whom have pre-qualified themselves as people who value that print, at least to the tune of $175.
It's almost certain that some number of those will not survive over time. Some will perhaps be handed over in divorce settlements or thrown to the vagaries of estate sales; some will be discarded when their owners tire of them; some will be lost to basement humidity or mildew or mold, or perhaps fade from months or years of blazing sunlight. Some will find unsympathetic inheritors. The picture itself might be the victim of changing fashions in photography; some prints, I'm sorry to mention, might fall victim to the irruptions of war, or bombing, or accidental fires, or confiscation. A box will be lost in a house move here, a print will be covered with snow when a tree falls through a roof there. A frame will fall with a crash from the wall and shards of glass will slash one print; another might get shuffled from spot to spot or house to house until the box it's in gets lost. And so forth. But I'll bet a number of them will still be around a hundred years from now, and probably some number will last for two hundred years, or even three hundred. No way to know for sure, of course. But the percentages now favor it.
The major issues in bullet points
So what are the best ways to ensure print survivabilty? Here are the ones I can think of:
• Regard. People think I'm joking when I respond to questions about how to make prints last by saying "be famous." But I'm not kidding. Value is a function of regard, of reputation, of accepted merit—and valuable things get preserved. A Steichen print is more likely to be protected and preserved than an E. O. Hoppé print, and an E.O.Hoppé print is more likely to be preserved than a picture somebody's Uncle Earl took. Of course this aspect of survivability is not usually in our control!
• Consider pictorial content. (I.e., what the picture is of.) Show things that people in the future will be interested in; things that change. (Charlie's picture doesn't do well in this respect. Presumably aspen trees will still look the same a hundred years from now. Then again, maybe not.) Portraits of famous people are more likely to be preserved than portraits of anonymous people; distinctive portraits are more likely to be kept than cookie-cutter portraits that look like a thousand other portraits. And so on.
• Edit. How is some stranger going to know which of your pictures is worthy of attention from others if you haven't even figured it out yet? If you can't sort through the dross to get to the gold, how can you expect some stranger to take the time and effort needed to do so?
• Inform. Things with labels last better because people stumbling across them have a clue what they are; things that go with other things have a greater tendency to be kept (nobody throws away no. 7 of a set of 12 when they're keeping the other 11); and things the significance of which is known can more easily find a home—they can more easily be matched up with that one person or organization that is interested in preserving them.
• Designate. Don't be afraid to set aside a little of your work and designate it for preservation, whether for your family or for posterity. Not everything you touch is worthy of deathless immortality. Someone will be grateful to know what you considered to be of significance.
• Make it real. People like objects. They like to collect things, own things, handle and show off things. A picture that exists only as a file on your computer or an idea in your mind is unlikely to endure, because it isn't a thing.
• Physical protection. Once it's an object, it needs to be protected. Objects are heir to all manner of assault and insult. Preserve against deterioration (light fading, acidity and pollution from within and without, etc.) by all means, but consider protecting the prints against physical harm, too. It's impractical to protect everything against everything, of course, but, again, if you've designated a small amount of edited work for preservation, at least you can take a stab at protecting that work. (A box to put prints in is a good first step.) And a related issue:
• Condition. Keep things in good condition. As the appraisers often remind the audience on Antiques Roadshow, "condition is everything." Damaged, scratched, dog-eared, dirty and decrepit prints are much more likely to be destined for annihilation.
• Craft. Beautiful, carefully made things contain or encapsulate in and of themselves a recommendation for their own preservation. By crafting something in an exotic or beautiful fashion, or with inordinate skill, or with expensive materials, you're communicating that you value it—in a way that can be interpreted as such by people in the future who know nothing else about it. (Just picture in your mind's eye someone holding an object and looking at it saying, "I don't need this, but it just seems too nice to throw away." You might have done that yourself.) (A word to the wise, however: certain strategies can backfire! An excessively ornate or beautiful box, for example, might get your pictures discarded so the box be used to hold something the future owner values more.)
• Play the numbers game. The more copies, the better. It's worth mentioning that this isn't an automatic guarantee, however. There's a story—dim in my memory now—of a guy who collected broadsides and pamphlets during the English Civil War. If it were not for him, all copies would have been lost to history—even though they were reproduced in the hundreds or thousands and distributed everywhere. Of all the people who saw them, only one decided not to treat them as ephemera. So numbers alone don't necessarily guarantee survival.
• Dissemination. The more different places the copies are stored, the better the chance of survival. I might point out that a number of the photographs in my grandparents' attic were there because they were duplicates—family members would have a number of copies printed when they had their portraits made, to send to all their relatives. My grandparents and great-grandparents and great-great-grandparents saved them, is all. That's how the attic "archive" got so many pictures of aunts and uncles, cousins, more distant relatives, and friends. Even today, when I make family pictures in the summertime, I make copies to send to everyone.
Don't sweat it
And one final option? Don't worry about it. That's always an option. There's nothing that says your pictures have to last. Some people would like it if they would; some people don't care. Life is a river in which the water changes all the time. Not everything need be preserved. If your thing is to make image files out of mere electrons for transient enjoyment, sharing them with the friends you make them for and then letting them evaporate into the ether, lost forever, well, no worries. Personally, I have at least a sentimental regard for those humans of the future whose attics we are stocking with the work we do now. I imagine them—a few of them, anyway—as being interested in what I take pictures of now. I see myself in them—myself as I was in 1983, discovering the treasures of my grandparents' attic.
But that's just me. Where you are concerned, of course, you decide.
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Original contents copyright 2011 by Michael C. Johnston and/or the bylined author. All Rights Reserved.
Featured Comment by Richard: "I hope your recommendations reach as many people as possible, but unfortunately I think the loss of images will be incurred by people who have never heard of TOP.
"Last year I participated in a course tutorial. We were discussing the culture of the British Seaside Holiday, and people were encouraged to bring along any photographs they had to illustrate the subject. (Martin Parr wasn't even mentioned!) The participants were multinational. What we got were family photos of not only the British seaside, but also for example, the Chilean equivalent from the 1920s. Amazing historical records. Interestingly most people had brought along prints preserved by previous generations. A couple of people provided digital images of recent times, but it was clear that there seemed to be a divide between the time when family members put things thoughtfully in Mike's shoeboxes, and labeled them. (Almost all of these old prints had something identifying then written on the back). The feeling was that habit of keeping photographs as family documents had ended.
"My feeling is that the advent of digital is causing a problem. Even for enthusiast photographers, managing a digital archive is not a trivial task, and it's also one that needs constant maintenance. In addition the commonplace nature of photography these days is turning images into one day wonders that grace a blog page and then disappear. Once the old prints had been put in a box that was it—all it requires is descendants who are suitably attuned to the value of social and family history. Every ordinary family knew how to do this instinctively. Now with potentially valuable documents scattered on mobile phones, Picasa, Facebook pages and heaven knows where, the chance are that those images which would be so useful to future generations will not be preserved. Sure you can print your digital images, but here again quantity and selection prove an obstacle. And why would an ordinary family adopt digital, and then go to the extra expense and bother of printing? Some do, I know, but I wonder how many?
"Something else emerged from the tutorial—the difference between staring at an image flashed on a screen for a short period, and passing around handfuls of prints, or spreading them out on a table to look at collectively.
"This is not a rant against digital. After all, it means that there will be more, probably better-quality documents available. But I think there is an inherent problem when it comes to preserving them."
Featured Comment by Alex S: "NASA had that 'don't sweat it' attitude...."
Mike replies: That is incredible. Just absolutely incredible.
Featured Comment by Don Craig: "Very good series Mike. The archiving problem is hard, from the Library of Congress on down. A couple of years ago I donated a large print (96x42 inches) to my then-employer. We permanently spray-glued it to the drywall in a colleague's office—it could be destroyed, but not moved elsewhere without a Sawzall. The company was sold, the building vacated, and the print now hangs in an empty office building, awaiting the next economic cycle. I think of it as tossing a message in a bottle into the ocean, artist's statement and all."
Mike replies: A great photo book I've been enjoying recently—The Complete Architecture of Adler and Sullivan, recommended to me by Ken Tanaka—makes me think that photographs might actually be more permanent than buildings, all things considered.
Featured Comment by James Bullard: "Photographs are ephemera, fleeting moments captured and preserved for fleeting segments of a larger time scale. A thousand years from now our best efforts at preservation will all have failed. Enjoy your work in the moment. Enjoy the work of other photographers in the moment. It's all you have."
Mike replies: I used to Zen-riddle my high school students by asking them if they would want their friends to have fun at their funerals. Made for some great philosophical agonizings (are they still "your friends"—a relational definition—if you no longer exist?). My view of the world is not entirely self-referential—I think of it as existing apart from me, and I'm comfortable with that view. In any event, I'm not sure you're right even so: after all, we still preserve the very first photograph ever made—Joseph Nicéphore Niépce's View from the Window at Le Gras—I've seen it myself, at the "Art of Fixing a Shadow" show at the National Gallery. A special darkened room was prepared for it, and a piece of thick weighted velvet hung over it, and a guard hovered nearby to make sure nobody kept the velvet curtain up for too long. Barring catastrophe, which is of course always a possibility, or complete deteriroation, also a possibility, I think that object bids fair to last a thousand years, assuming human civilization also does.
In other words, I think you're generally right, but that there will always be exceptions.
Featured Comment by Will Frostmill: "Courtesy of my Aunt the professional Archivist: A brief note on getting things into historical societies and museums: they have to spend time and money to catalog, study, and preserve the stuff you give them. A well labeled, organized, and documented set of anything could make a huge difference. Obviously, if you offer money to them to pay the staff to label, organize, etc. then that helps too. There are only so many people who work at a museum, (even interns and students), and there is only so much climate controlled cold storage. But a sufficiently large collection, even a very valuable one, could bankrupt them, even if they had the cubic feet to keep it."
Featured Comment by Mark Walker: "Great article, Mike. Note to self: buy shoes, keep box."